Shirley Hipditch Ellzey never made it back to St. John’s and the province she left behind to escape a hard early life, but this month her American family made the journey for her.
The day she died, Hipditch Ellzey expressed a wish to be returned to St. John’s, said her daughter Jeannine Cordero of Chicago, Ill.
They scattered her ashes at sea close to St. John’s harbour.
The journey had her children and two of her grandchildren not only tracing Ellzey’s girlhood footsteps and family history but meeting people face to face with whom they’d bonded with by distance, in part due to a Telegram story on Ellzey’s passing in January 2017.
“We tried to get her back here at one point in time but there were a lot of ghosts here,” said Cordero, the eldest of her three children.
“In the end, she was very curious about what happened to a lot of people but she had experienced a lot of hard times here.”
Despite her hard times, she remained in love with her former home and got to see it by computer through a Google Streetview Cordero showed her.
Some of the people the family connected with turned up at a gathering Sunday at YellowBelly Brewery in St. John’s.
“We’re kind of late meeting many relatives. We have found people who remembered mom…. through them we got a feel for what it was like back then.,” Cordero said.
Patsy McCormack of Witless Bay, related to Hipditch Ellzey through marriage, hosted the family at a Jigg’s dinner in Trepassey last week. They got a walking tour of the old west end of St. John’s — where Hipditch Ellzey spent her early childhood around Victoria Park — from Marina Aita.
Sunday night, Aita and Doreen Heffernan recalled Hipditch Ellzey as a quiet girl, with beautiful, auburn hair. The kids of all ages from the neighbourhood would walk to school, branching off to their schools.
After Hipditch Ellzey went in Belvedere orphanage, they lost touch with her until they read about her life and passing and connected with Cordero. They came from a generation without email, Facebook or ways to instantly connect with friends who moved away.
Aita noted many old friends have since passed, or are in long-term care homes.
Hipditch Ellzey had left St. John’s for the U.S. in 1953 after a stint in the former Belvedere girls orphanage — her father had died in 1940 when she was five and her mother in 1949 when Ellzey was 13. By then Ellzey was already in Belvedere as her mother had tuberculosis. Two siblings — her brother and half sister — were raised by relatives.
In the U.S., she first became a caregiver for a family in Takoma Park, Maryland, and went on to an accomplished life.
“It’s great after so many years to see the lovely family and what a nice life she had. She really had an amazing life all that she accomplished — it was wonderful,” Heffernan said.
Reuben Warren was a child when he met a young teenage Ellzey through older friends.
“She was a very, very impressive person. It stuck with me until I read (The Telegram) article.
“I didn’t know what happened to her down through the years.”
Her son George Ellzey of Denver, Colo., and daughter Joy Pilon of Williamsport, Pa., along with Cordero and her husband David Kolin, looked into family history, visited the site of the former orphanage and got to put Hipditch Ellzey’s memories she shared with them in perspective.
“We were chasing a lot of her stories down,” said Kolin.
“Things are familiar based on the stuff Shirley would talk about. They were coming to life.”
“It’s nice — maybe there are some regrets of never doing it when we were younger and she was still here,” Pilon said. “It’s a beautiful place. I am glad we are getting to see it.”
“This was a little bit of closure,” said George Ellzey.
“It’s certainly a fascinating place.”
Granddaughter Katherine Kolin, a student at Boston University, said the trip explains a lot of the mystery of her grandmother.
“The trip is mostly for mom and her siblings. I am here as moral support,” she said. “And because I am interested in the history of the place and family history.
… I don’t think anyone was expecting the kind of response we got thanks to (the Telegram),” she said.
“I think that’s really amazing. To see my mom be determined to (return her mother’s ashes here and reach out) is really outstanding. The hospitality and generosity of the people here is unmatched compared to any other place I have been in my life. I think it is marvelous.”
Katherine Kolin said she’s learned more about her grandmother because she shared little of her early struggles directly with them, though she did tell of it to her children.
“The character of my grandmother has become rounded out in my mind. That’s important. I loved her. She was my grandmother but so much makes sense now that didn’t before,” she said.
“She lived outside the norm and was a rule breaker. She was a really fiery person. And she made a lot of really, really hard decisions in my life.”
Katherine also found St. John’s the magical place her mother described despite her early rough start.
“I would certainly love to come back,” said her brother, Yale.
Some of the people who turned up were women Cordero found through a Facebook page for former Belvedere orphanage residents.
Even though some did not know Hipditch Ellzey personally, they wanted to help the family understand what the orphanage was like.
Hipditch Ellzey, who once worked as a housekeeper for famed Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider, was 81 when she died of breast cancer.
After she left Newfoundland and Labrador at 17 for the U.S., she eventually married a Colombian-born doctor and spent some time in Mexico and her husband’s native country before divorcing and returning to the U.S. with her then young daughter, Cordero.
Hipditch Ellzey later married a serviceman and had two more children — George Ellzey and Joy Pilon. Hipditch Ellzey trained as a dental assistant and worked for a time with two prominent Maryland orthodontists who treated Washington, D.C., politicians.
She loved working for the Snider family in Pennsylvania and travelled frequently with them.